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Another Perspective

Why Do We Suffer? Part One: A Hebrew Perspective

As a psychotherapist I frequently meet with people who are suffering. To them it seems as if the suffering will never end. At times it is more than they believe they can endure. It is not uncommon for them to ask, "Why do I suffer?"

Why a God of love allows suffering has been one of the more troubling questions for Christians to answer. Non-Christians, however, have some keen insights into why God allows suffering. For example, the Hebrew prophet known only as Second Isaiah offered this perspective into suffering when speaking in the name of God to his people:

See, I have refined you, but not like silver;
I have tested you in the furnace of adversity.(48:10)*

This verse was written in the context of God saying there is a reliable connection between what I proclaim and what I do. A new proclamation is being declared here: the time of suffering for sin (being in exile) is coming to an end and a restoration (returning home) is about to occur. In particular, God's anger at the Hebrew people's sinfulness is to be seen not as a permanent condition, but as a refining.

Second Isaiah's insight is that suffering serves the purpose of refining the soul.** Suffering is not to punish; it is to refine. Suffering brings authenticity,*** a genuiness that cannot be achieved in other ways. We have all observed the huge difference between someone who knows about something and the person who has lived it. The individual who has walked through the fire speaks with an authority, legitimacy, and realness the other lacks no matter how well informed that person may be. As a raw clay pot can be transformed/strengthened by passing through the fire of a furnace, so the human soul can be transformed/strenthened by passing through the fire of suffering. The excesses of life and personality are burned away and a more humble and solid core to our being can emerge as a result. Whether the refining happens or not depends on the attitude adopted by the sufferer. If the person is curious about the meaning of their suffering, strives to understand it, it is more likely a refining will occur than if the person whines, has a poor-me attitude, or becomes a victim.

If the purpose of life is to be the person God created us to be, then suffering is one way our essential personhood is exposed.

What are your thoughts about suffering or Second Isaiah's insight?

* The New Oxford Annotated Bible. This passage was probably written between 546 and 538 B.C.E. Living during the Babylonian exile, Second Isaiah addressed his people's s adversity, suffering and despair with themse of hope, redemption and restoration.
** Here heis speaking of the collective soul of the Hebrews, but the insight is equally true for individuals.
*** Authenticity etymologically dervives from the Sanskrit, ásus, meaning, the life of the soul.
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